Ken Paulson: Welcome to a special edition of “Speaking Freely.” I’m Ken Paulson, executive director of the First Amendment Center, and we’re pleased to inaugurate a new series called “Whitney Dialogues at the First Amendment Center.” The co-host for this series is the director of the Whitney Museum of American Art, Max Anderson.
Max Anderson: Thank you, Ken. We’re delighted to be working with the First Amendment Center on an exciting and important series of conversations with American artists. With this series, we’ll have an opportunity to talk with the people who push the boundaries that society often sets for itself in the arts.
Paulson: Our special guest today is an artist who came to prominence in the late 1980s with “Fluid Abstractions,” a series of works that lit a bonfire in the U.S. Congress and subsequently was decried and defended worldwide. A man who has continued to explore topics that others may see as off-limits, Andres Serrano.
Andres Serrano: Thank you.
Paulson: That had to be a difficult period for you. A piece of art you created that involved a crucifix immersed in your own urine. I've heard observers say that if you did not know the content, you would think it was a very respectful piece of art, respectful towards religion. And yet the controversy surrounding that work led to Jesse Helms calling you “a jerk” on the floor of the U.S. Congress and you were vilified in the political world. What was that experience like?
Serrano: It was like something out of Kafka, where I wake up in the morning and find myself being denounced in Congress. And of course I never imagined that it would happen. The piece was not … intended to be offensive or provocative, you know. At the time, I rarely had any kind of reputation or audience so I didn’t expect for it to do what it did. But, you know, it … it had its ups and downs, to say the least.
Anderson: It was part of a larger series. You were working with several other kinds of objects immersed in different fluids. Could you talk a little bit about the series itself?
Serrano: Well, actually, I had begun working with specifically milk and blood, and later went on to piss. But at first, the fluids were being used in a very abstract way. You know, sort of, you know, using them as pure color or pigment in the same way an artist would use a … paint, you know. But ultimately, I decided to refer it to some sort of representation within the fluids. And “Piss Christ” was the first object, the first photograph created where I submerged an object in the urine. And religion had been an important theme in my work before the fluid images began, so it was just a matter of two different directions coming together in one image.
Anderson: But just to follow up, this is pretty standard stuff in the history of Christianity, in Christian iconography, the use of the body, the use of fluids in the representation. Is that something you were drawing from? Is that part of it?
Serrano: Well, I remember as a kid going to the Met when I was 12 and 13 years old and seeing some … what I thought were pretty wild images by Hieronymous Bosch that dealt with Christianity and religion. And so I … yeah … you know, I've never thought that my stuff was so outrageous.
Paulson: Now there had to be people who sincerely were offended by what you did. Do you think they misunderstood your work? Or is there simply a lack of respect for creativity?
Serrano: Uh, absolutely. There are many people who misunderstood the work. But the worst were the ones who purposely misinterpreted the work for their own agenda, you know. They had their own axe to grind, and so it had nothing to do with the work. And … but, you know, there were good Christians who, you know, who … sent me letters in the beginning expressing their concern and … and, you know, dismay. And I responded to them and, you know, letting them know that I was not anti-Christian. I was not an anti-Christian bigot and that I, in fact, felt like a Christian myself.
Anderson: And you were brought up in a Catholic family.
Serrano: Yeah, I was raised as a Catholic, you know. And of course, I left the church at the age of 13 or 14. As most ex-Catholics that I speak to, you know, they sort of leave the church at around that time. And I've always felt there was a … you know, there’s a basic conflict between what the church tells you and what your body tells you at that age. And if you're smart, you’ll listen to your body.
Paulson: And you mention that before this controversy, you were relatively unknown.
Paulson: A little more than a decade later, you are widely known and widely respected. So was that controversy a blessing or a curse?
Serrano: Both. (Laughs) You know, why couldn’t it be both? Yeah. I mean, that’s … but that’s the nature of my work. It … there is a lot of conflict and contradiction within the work and certainly the way it’s been perceived and seen, you know, outside of the studio is also conflicted.
Anderson: So who would be some of the artists that you looked to for inspiration early in your career?
Serrano: A lot of dead ones. (Laughs) But early on, I was influenced, I think, by filmmakers like Luis Bunuel and Fellini and Ingmar Bergman. You know, back in the ‘60s I was a teenager going to art school, in the late ‘60s. And so this was … these were the people who were influencing me as well as Marcel Duchamp and others.
Paulson: Is there a … an impulse when you’ve found a reaction in what is … what some people view as shocking, and you didn’t intend to shock, is there an impulse to replicate that or to avoid it?
Serrano: You know, basically I do both but not intentionally. I'm aware that when I go in the studio when I do my work, you know, it comes from within. I forget about the critics, the … the audience, the … the fans, the detractors, the collectors. I forget about everything, everyone, you know, and I … I just listen to what is inside of me that I need to do.
Anderson: You do that when you work. But a lot of the controversy of your work stems from the titles that you give the work. So if someone were to have seen “Piss Christ” or see any of the works, “Piss Satan,” or any of the other works that you’ve made without a title, they wouldn’t know how to grasp an intention. How important is it to you and how do you do that?
Serrano: Well, not only wouldn’t they know how to grasp an intention, they wouldn’t even know what they were looking at. See, that’s … the reason I title the images the way I do is just to be literal or, you know, to give some sort of information to the viewer so they know what they're looking at. You know, even though I … I don’t call myself a photographer, I call myself an artist, I am a photographer who creates images that are basically things that are based in reality. And so when I do a monochrome and it’s just a red photograph, you know, I … by titling it “Blood” people know that they’re looking at a monochrome of blood rather than just red color, you know. And so I find it necessary to … to give the images titles just to inform the audience. And, you know, a lot of times the titles are some things … something that pops into my head at the same time as … as the image that is (inaudible). But they … you know, they need each other.
Paulson: Do you think there’s a temptation to self-censor? Clearly you haven't done that, but … but for other artists who are trying to achieve some level of marketability?
Serrano: I have no idea, you know. I know that it’s difficult for me to keep on doing the same old thing. And, you know, if I’m going to ask the audience to … if I’m going to put them on the spot and ask them to go the extra mile, you know, I sometimes find that I need to do the same thing and take risks myself. And so that’s my way of keeping up with the younger generation.
Anderson: Does that mean photography is something that’s a jumping-off point for you? Because you're still a young artist. In the terms of what happens today, are there other media, other ways of working that you're exploring?
Serrano: The only thing I'm interested in is film. But I … I need a budget, you know?
Serrano: You know, if someone gave me some money, then I'd come up with a script and direct a movie for them. But … that’s the only other medium I'm interested in.
Paulson: Well, your art to date has been unorthodox, in the view of some. Would your film work be the same? Do you have a vision of film that might be different from what other people are doing currently?
Serrano: You … you know what? It would probably be in line with a lot of the ideas and thoughts and feelings that have gone into my own work, you know, into my photographic work. And so it would not be so off-base, you know. But it would be film, which is different.
Anderson: But you also make precious objects. That is, you make limited editions of photographs. And when “Piss Christ” became a controversy, people thought it actually was a work, an object in three dimensions they would see. And they were startled to see a photograph. When you look at a technique or a medium, is it something for you that is changeable in film from photography in intention as well? Would you take us in a new direction or dimension through film?
Serrano: I'd certainly try, of course, you know. Definitely. I … I find that … you know, I … I don’t create too many art objects but I have. And even though they will not, you know, they're not photographs, they're still concerned with the same ideas and issues in some way or another. And so, you know, I'm a great believer in … you know, trying to make it new. And … and even if it’s not new, at least giving it the appearance of … of the new.
Paulson: One of your series in the ‘90s involved taking photographs of members of the Ku Klux Klan. That had to be difficult to get access. How’d you go about doing that?
Serrano: Well, I made the calls to Atlanta, Georgia, and I got contacts. And even so, I had to spend a couple of weeks there talking to various people down there, including Klansmen and even a Klanswoman that I got to photograph. You know, it took me a couple of weeks to, like, sort of get into, you know, the groove and be able to photograph them (inaudible). But, you know, in the end, I managed to photograph eight or nine people, including the two imperial wizards. Well, the ex-imperial wizard and the new imperial wizard at the time.
Paulson: Weren’t you viewed with some suspicion if you walked into one of their meetings?
Serrano: Well, you know, after … I would say so, that there was a couple of occasions like that. But, you know … I would just listen patiently. And after their, you know, tirade about niggers, Jews, and queers was over, you know, they realized I wasn’t there to challenge or question them. And so, you know, after they got that out of the way, they were able to deal with me on a personal level. And we’d start the work.
Paulson: One of the questions I had about that series is, when I read about the homeless study you had done, you talked about bringing dignity to the subjects. Were you interested in bringing dignity to the Klan?
Serrano: Well, first of all, I never claimed to bring any dignity to the homeless. I've always said that, you know, people have said to me, “You’ve made these people sort of dignified. You’ve given them so much dignity.” And I always say, “I haven't given them anything that I … they don’t already possess. All I've done is to light them well, you know.” But yeah, I photographed the Klan in much the same way, close up, a little bit from below, and, you know, making them pretty much bigger than life and monumental as I did with the homeless. And, you know, I've always said that my work is open to interpretation. And so when you see, even though the homeless and the Klan have been photographed the same way, what you see is up to you.
Anderson: In your “Morgue” series, you took on a topic that also has been dealt with in the history of art. Late 19th century French painters would occasionally paint from the morgue. How would that series, for you, be a shift in your work? And how is it different from, say, the kind of visit you made with the Klan and being part of a series in that case, and here being more of an observer?
Serrano: Well, people have always asked me, why did you want to photograph the dead? And you know, that’s a difficult question for me to understand. The question is more like, why not? You know? And basically, it took me a few years to gain access to a morgue where I was allowed to photograph. But once I finally got permission, and by the way, I didn’t try very hard, you know. I mean, I had the idea once upon a time, realized it was difficult to get into a morgue and dropped it for several years. And it was only till a few years later, a friend of mine said she had a contact who had a contact at a morgue, did I pursue it. And when the opportunity came to me, it came quite easily. And so basically, you know again, that’s something that the critics had a problem with, some critics had a problem with, and treated it like it was an extraordinary thing to want to photograph the dead. But for me, it’s the most natural thing in the world because basically I photograph the basics in life, you know — religion, sex, death. It’s the things that we know about, you know, or think about. And so for me, it was a natural thing to want to do.
Paulson: When you did that project, did you come away with any new sense of death? I mean, I think a good number of people would walk into a morgue and be repelled. Did you learn anything in the process of doing this work?
Serrano: Well, I learned a couple of things. First of all, I learned that white people turned … turn black and brown when … when they're submerged in the water for any length of time. I photographed several people who on appearance look like black people who were actually white people who had been in the water too long. You know, there was a woman that I once photographed. The image is titled, “Jane Doe Killed by Police.” And basically, this is a woman who had been in a stolen car. Some shots were fired. The police fired some shots, killed her and the driver got away. So she was never identified. So when I got to the … when I got to photograph her, she had been in the morgue for two months already. And she’s a brown-skinned woman, but there’s white skin underneath the black skin. And I asked the doctor about that. And he said to me, he said, “Yeah,” he said, “there’s white skin underneath the black skin.” And he explained to me that once he had a … a teacher who explained … who took a really thin slice of skin off of a body and explained to his students that that was the thickness of racism.
Anderson: Anecdotes from your “Sex” series. Tell us about following up on that. Did you in that series come up with some other kinds of revelations that would have surprised you?
Serrano: Well, I learned some things. I learned about some of the sexual practices of the people in Holland and, you know, and the sort of parties and clubs that they have. And it’s a very permissive society, and … which I found refreshing, because here — here’s a country where, for instance, in Amsterdam you walk around the red light district, which is all tourists mostly, you know … I mean, there’s men there looking for women but … it’s also 50 to 60 percent tourists as well. And you look in the porn stores in the windows, you see the hardest stuff you could imagine in the windows. I'm talking about bestiality, everything. And I mean, you don’t have to go inside to see the hardest stuff they have. And obviously they feel comfortable their children are not turning into killers and rapists and perverts, you know. So I find that very refreshing, that a society like that can exist that is not afraid of sexuality. And so, you know, when I worked there, I was there five months at the request of the Germinger Museum, which was doing a huge retrospective of my work. And the museum actually sponsored the “Sex” pictures. They gave me a large amount of money to do the work. In return, I gave them some prints for their collection. But it was very refreshing to be able to deal with people who, you know, the only pressure they would put on me was … Mark Wilson, the curator of the museum, the only pressure he ever put on me was to go out there and do stuff. He would say to me, “Andres, you haven't shot a picture in two months,” rather, “in two weeks.” And I'd say, “Well, you know, Mark, I was thinking about taking a photograph of a woman pissing into a man’s mouth.” And he’d say to me, “Great, go ahead. Book the car. Do it.”
Anderson: Has the climate and receptivity for your work changed in America over the last decade? Do you feel that, do you think about it a lot?
Serrano: You know, I don’t really know. It’s been three years since my last show so I really don’t know, you know, what the weather’s like out there. But I imagine it’s pretty much the same, you know. I see, you know, the larger picture, you know, things have been rocking, you know, in this country as far as the arts are concerned. But specifically for me, I think I’ll always have my supporters and detractors.
Paulson: Are there occasions when critics see things in your work that you haven't seen and you walk away and go, “You know, I buy that, I embrace that?”
Serrano: Absolutely, you know. There are times when that happens. There are times when, you know, the man or woman on the street comes up and sees something that I didn’t see. And I must say one of the things that I enjoy about my work, and it’s very rewarding to me, is that I get a lot of good responses. And by the “good responses,” I mean open responses from the popular press, from, say, The New York Post, of all places sometimes, or … Daily News. You know, magazines and media that … that is … that attracts an audience that does not know much about art, that does not know anything about my work. And yet it draws these people to the work. And those are the people that I listen to, the man and woman on the street who come up to me and see the most obvious things and they get it … unlike the critics who don’t see it.
Anderson: Is that because the art world is too mannered and too bound up in theory and ideology, and not looking at the work?
Serrano: Well, maybe. But I think also the art world has its own agenda a lot of times, you know. But also, you know, I think it’s because I'm really, you know, I like to see myself as a sort of populist artist in that sense, in that, you know, my heart is with the people, you know. I'm … you know, it’s … you know, like I said before, I try to deal with issues and themes in my work that anyone can relate to, that, you know, you don’t need to have an art education to be able to … to see it.
Paulson: Are there series that have had a particularly strong response from the people you're talking about, people … everyday people?
Serrano: Well, for a lot of people, the “Morgue” pictures, photographs of the dead was a very striking and moving show and memorable, you know.
Paulson: Is there a process you go through in deciding what your next show will be? Is it a … a yearlong process where you reflect on it? Or does it come to you in the shower? How does that work?
Serrano: Well, this time it took three years, you know. After the last show I didn’t know what to do next. And it was only when at … finally, the gallery, my gallery … the Paula Cooper Gallery said to me, “How about a show in May? And you haven't had a show in almost four years.” I said, “Fine.” So once I have a deadline, then I have to start thinking about it. And it came to me, you know. I gave them two ideas or I told them the titles of two shows. They liked one over the other, and I thought, OK, that’s what I’ll do. And … but it is a process, you know. When I started the work, I started about three months ago, I could see now midway through the work that it’s gonna change and get even better, you know. But it is a process, you know, from the first image until the last. You know, a lot of things, a lot of thought goes into it. And it’s a matter of doing it and learning as you do.
Paulson: When you have a series of photographs, do you begin the series by taking images and then building on those? Or do you sit down initially and say, "Here’s the scope of what I would like to explore?”
Serrano: No, I … I do the former, you know. I start out small and then go on to the bigger picture. And with this show, it’s like that, you know. Started out with just a few ideas, and now they’re becoming a few personal ideas that are … taking on more universal tones.
Anderson: I know you don’t want to talk about too much what your next show is, so there’s a bit of suspense around it. But are there other taboos in American life and life in general that you're interested in exploring in your work to come?
Serrano: I don’t know if they're taboos, but I think I'm interested in the … in the American dream, whatever that means.
Paulson: I'm not sure how that would translate. Any ideas?
Serrano: Oh, yeah. I've got plenty.
Paulson: And we’re not going to get you to tip your hand here today. As you go through the process of creating a show, have there been occasions where you’ve begun it and said, “No, this is just not gonna work,” and —
Serrano: Absolutely, all the time. I mean, I … I do that in my apartment. You know, I got a new apartment a couple of years ago, and it’s a work in progress. When we do something I didn’t like, I'd say, screw it, do it again. It’s the same thing with the work, you know. And you know, it’s a drag when you spend a grand or more on a shoot and then you feel like it’s not there, but … you know, sometimes you have to say screw it. You can’t … you know, you can’t compromise, you know.
Anderson: What proportion of your work have you made that we haven’t seen?
Serrano: I would say 90 percent? I mean, 90 percent overall, you know. Especially early on. Later on, it got … the percentage got better. But early on I would say 90 percent of the stuff I did I dismissed it as not being good enough. And so I only show you the 10 percent. I think I'm now I'm batting, like, 50-50.
Paulson: One of the projects the First Amendment Center does is an annual survey on attitudes towards the First Amendment. And in a most recent survey, 67 percent of Americans said you shouldn’t be allowed to put art up in public if it might offend anyone in the community. What do you think that says about the American public and their sense of art?
Serrano: Hmm … I think, well, you know, first of all, I think those people who were polled and said that seem to have … they seem to be afraid of something. This is what I like about Europe, you know. And I'm not saying this as a way to say they're better than us, because, you know, I love … you know, I love being an American. I love being born here, you know. I was born here, you know. I love being a product of this society. But I also see that in Europe you can walk around and see images dealing with nudity on TV and … it’s treated in a very natural way, you know. People are not threatened by these things. And I've always felt that the … ideas are not dangerous. It’s just the repression of those ideas is dangerous, but ideas in themselves should not threaten anyone, you know.
Anderson: Is there a single forum that you would like your work to be seen in where it hasn’t been seen? A single way of having it presented in an exhibition or a public stage, as it were?
Serrano: TV. I think it should be on TV.
Paulson: You were kind enough to join us today to talk about work of the past, and I know that’s not your focus. But is there a point at which you get tired of being the poster child for art censorship?
Serrano: I'm not, you know. Early on I realized that this whole censorship debate was a circus that had nothing to do with my work, and I chose not to be a part of it, you know. In fact, I … I've done very few shows dealing with the First Amendment. And people have asked me over the years to be on panels and I've always said no. But I don’t mind, you know, going to a museum or a lecture or to a college to lecture about my work. But I'd never wanted to be seen as … any sort of figure or crusader in the First Amendment issue. Because for me, you know, if I was to become a fixture on the First Amendment circuit, it would be very taxing, you know. People would be sick of me, you know, and I'd be sick of myself. So my contribution to the First Amendment is not really to speak on it but to just do it.
Paulson: Well, we’re very glad you made an exception to join us today.
Anderson: Let me ask you a last question, Andres, which has to do about what you were just saying and how you see yourself and your work. You’ve said your work is like a mirror to you. What do you see in your work and what does the public see in that mirror?
Serrano: You know, Max, that’s a very good question because I look at myself and I look in the mirror and I look at the work, the current work, and I don’t know what I see, you know. And I don’t know if I understand it or not, but that’s OK. Because there’s a lot of art in this world that I don’t understand, but, you know, I don’t have to understand it in order to like it. And so I would say that it’s even better when I don’t understand it.
Paulson: Thank you so much for joining us today.
Serrano: Thank you.
Paulson: Our guest today on “Whitney Dialogues at the First Amendment Center” has been Andres Serrano. I'm Ken Paulson, back next week with another conversation about the First Amendment, the arts and America. I hope you can join us then for “Speaking Freely.”